The Local Government Mentorship Movement

By Angelica Wedell, National Research Center, Inc

Recruiting from the new workforce, retaining skilled employees and preparing city and town leadership for the future are major challenges for the resiliency of local government.  Many jurisdictions are making plans and setting strategies to help their employees and organizations achieve higher levels of success.  And while there are many ways to build up the workforce, local government employees readily point to mentorship as a means to support and prepare staff in their careers and in their lives.

National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) has an interesting database on local government employees, but I wanted to know what makes mentorship, specifically, a point of passion for many local government professionals who are role models and thought-leaders in the field.  So I asked a few of them why mentorship matters and what it has done for their careers.  If I’ve learned one thing from these insights, it’s that mentorship is not only a necessity, but it has become a national movement to strengthen the future of local government.


MEET A MENTOR:  Brent Stockwell

Brent Stockwell serves as Assistant City Manager for the City of Scottsdale, AZ.  He has taken leadership roles in everything from strategic planning to improving work-life through employee surveys.  Stockwell is also an active ICMA members and has given presentations and appeared on panels at major conferences.  He has worked in local government for well over a decade and has always shown an interest in helping young people achieve their dreams.  In this interview, Stockwell describes the role that mentorship has played in his own career.

Angelica:   Why is mentorship important?

Brent Stockwell:  We all have dreams for our lives and careers, and it’s helpful to listen and learn from those who are farther along the journey – both the good and the bad. Entering into mentoring relationships takes an important admission that you don’t know everything and that you’re ready and willing to learn.

Who has been a mentor in your own life?  What did they do for you?

One of my mentors was Barbara Burns who was Assistant City Manager when I first started at the City of Scottsdale 15 years ago as a citizen liaison. I wanted to work eventually in the city manager’s office and I asked her if she would be willing to mentor and coach me. We met several times, and shortly thereafter, our City Manager Jan Dolan invited me to join her team in the city manager’s office. The biggest thing that Barbara did for me was show interest in me and my career. I just saw Barbara again recently and she congratulated me on becoming Assistant City Manager in Scottsdale. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you know that others whom you look up to believe in you and are interested in your success!

Why have you decided to take on a mentor role?

I have mentored a number of students and younger professionals over the years, and just signed up to volunteer as a mentor through our state association. Like a lot of things in life, I feel it’s important to “pay it forward” and offer to others what you’ve been given in life.  Coaching and mentoring is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received. Early in my career, I took a job working with junior high and high school students simply to “repay” those who had invested in my life as a teenager.

What’s one career/life lesson you’ve learned that you’d like to share with others?

One life lesson I’ve shared over and over is advice that another mentor, Louis Hill, gave me early in my career. I had just resigned a position giving six weeks’ notice because I had accomplished my goals, there was no other position for me in the organization and was ready to move on (the job was completely stressing me out). But I didn’t have another job lined up. [Hill] said if I had spoken to him before I resigned, he would have tried to talk me out of it. His advice? Never resign a position without having another one. He understood I was being fair to my employer by giving them time to replace my position – but I needed to think of myself and my family first – and that’s OK. I’ve passed on that advice again and again.


MEET A MENTOR:  Patricia Martel

Patricia Martel is the current City Manager of Daly City, CA and past ICMA president.  While starting her professional life as a journalist, Martel found her calling in local government and has worked in the field for well over 30 years.  Martel has created mentorship programs promoting diversity in local government’s top leadership roles.  She has also been seen traveling the country at ELGL conferences and League of Women in Government summits, speaking with aspiring leaders and empowering them to take the next steps in their careers.  In this interview, Martel explains why mentorship is especial crucial to the advancement of women and people of color in the highest levels of local government.

Angelica:  Why is mentorship important? 

Patricia Martel:  Mentorship is important to support the advancement of emerging and mid-career leaders in local government. It provides an opportunity for mentees to learn from others’ experiences and to gain valuable insights from others’ perspectives as their careers unfold. Mentorship also creates a safe relationship between the mentee and a more experienced local government manager/leader that can allow for sharing difficult issues and circumstances that might not be possible with others within the mentee’s organization or network.  Most importantly, mentorship helps mentees to understand that they are not alone in their local government careers and to develop the confidence to ask for help from others.  There are always others who have been through similar experiences, both positive and negative, who can lend insights that will help emerging and mid-career leaders to see that they can overcome tough situations and develop resiliency.  It is particularly important for me to support the advancement of women, people of color and inclusion in the profession because it has impacted my career.  Mentorship allows me the opportunity to work with diverse individuals and groups to support their advancement.

Who has been a mentor in your own life?  What did they do for you? 

I have had many mentors and coaches throughout my career. My initial mentor, and the one who probably had the most impact on my career, was the City Manager of the very first city I worked for out of graduate school. He taught me how to be a local government manager by exposing me to a range of professional development opportunities and always challenging me to accept more responsibility. This enabled me to learn the nuts and bolts of being a manager.  Through him I learned not to be afraid of the unknown or not having all of the right answers. I also learned the value of a professional network, like ICMA [and ELGL], to broaden the range of perspectives from which I could learn how to do my job more effectively. What I have always appreciated about my first mentor was that he taught me a great deal about my profession without micromanaging my learning. He provided the environment to learn and then pushed me to seek my own way, with the assurance that I would always have a “lifeline” if things didn’t work out as planned. Many of the other colleagues who have served as mentors for me over the years, including Elected Officials, City Managers, Assistant City Managers, City Attorneys, and others outside of government, have expanded my perspective and understanding of how to deal with people and situations in a political context that we cannot control. These have been valuable lessons because once you learn the mechanics of being a local government manager, learning to be an effective leader becomes the next phase of professional growth.

Why have you decided to take on a mentor role? 

Feeling so fortunate for the support I have received throughout my career from mentors and coaches, colleagues, friends and family, I feel that it is my personal and professional responsibility to “pay it forward” to others.  Recognizing that people need to see what they can be, being a woman and person of color, I try to lead by example and support others who aspire to do what I am able to do in this profession. I actively remind my colleagues that “somewhere, somehow, someone helped you to realize your career aspirations and goals” and it becomes your responsibility to help others succeed, as well.  This profession has been such an important part of my life that anything I can do to encourage and support others to commit to public service as a career will allow me to give back all that I have received throughout my career.

What’s one career/life lesson you’ve learned that you’d like to share with others? 

 What helps to build one’s confidence throughout your career is a willingness to be vulnerable.  It’s knowing that anything you have felt or are going through in your career or life, someone else has too.  So being willing to reach out to others – a mentor, trusted colleague or friend – will help you to overcome whatever insecurity you may have and begin to build confidence and resiliency.  All of our mistakes have meaning.  So being open to learning from those mistakes can make the difference between succeeding and getting stuck. Learning from others’ mistakes or challenges and how they gained perspective which allowed them to move on can be of enormous support on your career path.


MEET A MENTOR:  Heather Geyer

Heather Geyer has been working in local government since the start of the 2000s and currently serves as the Administrative Services Director for the City of Wheat Ridge, CO.  Geyer cares strongly about the professional development of her staff, which becomes evident in her management style.  She also works to support the advancement of women in local government by leading the efforts of Colorado Women Leading Government.  In this interview, Geyer describes how mentors benefit from the professional relationship just as much as mentees.

Angelica:  Why is mentorship important?

Heather Geyer:  I don’t know what life would be like without mentors. [On second thought] I do actually – life would be lonely, dull, uneventful and you would have to figure out all of your problems on your own. In this field, it is important that you have a support system of individuals who understand what it means to work in local government firsthand. Mentors provide an understanding that family members – even spouses – cannot provide. Mentors speak our language.

Who has been a mentor in your own life?  What did they do for you?

My first internship boss, Michelle Kivela, Deputy Town Administrator for Parker, is a friend and a mentor. She has stood by me when times have been tough and has been there to celebrate the good times. I know I can count on her for advice when I need it. Our Police Chief Dan Brennan is also one of my mentors. I usually check in with him when I need to vent or run a personnel issue by someone. He is a great listener and he can provide a valuable perspective based on knowing the organization and the challenges we have here.

Why have you decided to take on a mentor role?

I have a coaching and mentoring management style, so I think mentorship is natural for me. I truly enjoy mentoring! I consider it a learning opportunity for me as much as my mentee.  We all have unique gifts and talents to offer our communities. I like to think we are all a work in progress, and mentors help you realize your potential!

One professional I spent time mentoring (outside of local government) went through a stretch of job changes because she was really dissatisfied with work in the private sector. She kept selling herself short and applying for jobs that she was overqualified for. I had an opportunity to ask her probing questions and help her recognize what she is really passionate about. Continuing to seek jobs in the private sector was not going to bring her the sense of fulfillment she was looking for.  She found a position with a nonprofit, and she is really happy.

What’s one career/life lesson you’ve learned that you’d like to share with others?

Don’t compare yourself to others. I think it is important to look to others to see what opportunities exist to better yourself as a professional and overall as a person. But there is absolutely not one formula for what a career in local government looks like. I think graduate programs often do a disservice to emerging professionals when they come fresh out of graduate school and feel pressure to become a city manager or assistant city manager right away. Some professionals are called to this immediate path and I think that is great. However, I spend so much time talking to emerging professionals and reassuring them that they are at a good place in their careers. If we focus too much on that next big title, we can often miss great opportunities right in front of us! I take the perspective that I want to enjoy the ride.


MEET A MENTOR:  Laura Savage

Laura Savage is the Administrative Clerk for the Pueblo West Metropolitan District in Colorado, and has worked in local government for the last ten years.  Although she started working for the metropolitan district in her 20s, Savage hadn’t originally planned a career in local government.  Her love of the profession quickly took hold as she moved up the ladder and continues to do so.  Savage is heavily involved with her community on a personal level and mentors grade-school children.  She also regularly contributes to ELGL on social media.  In this interview, Savage explains how mentorship can open doors to unexpected opportunities.

Angelica:  Why is mentorship important?

Laura Savage:  Mentorship is important to foster growth – professionally and personally – and to provide direction in the unknown. Mentors are the bow to your arrow; they help guide your aim for a target and propel you forward. But ultimately, you must be resilient enough to endure a strong breeze in order to follow the guided trajectory.

Who has been a mentor in your own life?  What did they do for you?

I’ve had a few mentors.  One of them, Yvonne Strain was the Operations Manager while I worked as a cashier at Gart Sports during college. Ms. Strain demanded nothing but excellent customer service – which entailed greeting every customer as they entered the store, answering the phone within three rings and always counting back change. In addition, she pushed me to learn the back-office computer system, which eventually led me to accepting a position in the IT department at the Sports Authority corporate office. Lesson learned – always be kind to people and pay attention to the little things. Eventually they add up to the big things. The big things take you places.

Why have you decided to take on a mentor role?

Recently I began participating in the Pueblo County United Way Mentorship Program. My mentee is a sixth grader at a local middle school, which I know can be a rough time [in life]. I want to be a role model and plant seeds for the little things. Water the seeds. Watch the seeds grow.

What’s one career/life lesson you’ve learned that you’d like to share with others?

Do not be afraid to say “yes” but be smart enough to say “no” when you need to.

And, according to my mother, “Be kind to one another, and pick up after yourself.”

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